Epic Fail for the Postal Service: The wrong model and the wrong BOG

March 23, 2015


In 2001 Postmaster General Bill Henderson submitted the first blueprints for a transformation of the Postal Service into a sleeker, more efficient business entity.  To justify the transformation, the rhetoric has repeated one mantra: the problem with the Postal Service is its outmoded and defective business model.  

A great deal of our speech with public policy is often coded — for example, “makers and takers” can often sound a lot like “black and white” — but in this case Henderson and his successor Jack Potter were pretty clear about their goal.  The way forward for the Postal Service, they said, would include cuts to the workforce, post office closings, a smaller postal infrastructure, and a general retreat from the idea of the Postal Service as a universal service provider.

The big mailers talk about the “failed business model.”  Postal commentators going back to Murray Comorow and through Alan Robinson have talked about the ‘failed business model.”  The folks in Congress, Republicans particularly but also Democrats like Tom Carper, all bemoan the “failed business model.” 

In focusing on the idea of a “failed business model,” these voices were able to elude facts like the billions siphoned out of the Postal Service to support payments to the Retiree Healthcare Benefit Fund that were essentially unnecessary.   Any discussion of rationalizing rates in ways that didn’t involve simply handing over postal revenues to narrow interests in the mailing community was avoided.  The idea of supporting universal service and postal infrastructure with modest budget contributions from the federal government was rejected. 

Instead, everyone seemed to agree that the nation’s postal infrastructure must be totally self-sufficient.  That was the preference of postal management as well, since money from Congress never comes with no strings attached.  Management takes every opportunity to remind people of this.  At the end of every press release is this sentence: “The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.”


The real problem

Assertions that the postal business model had failed reflected nothing other than a wish to apply a corporate model to a basic government service and function.  It didn’t matter that we had the most effective postal system in the world, a system that delivered more mail to more addresses at cheaper rates than virtually anywhere else.  It didn’t matter that our network of postal plants and post offices were the hearts of American communities.  It didn’t matter that the Postal Service provided 800,000 good jobs with good benefits, or that the income from these jobs flowed throughout local communities, supporting businesses large and small.

The sad fact is that none of the things that did matter to the average person mattered to those who set postal policy.  They had imbibed from the well that had transformed the American economy from an engine of shared growth and prosperity to a shell game that enriched the few at the expense of the many.  

In a little more than two generations we have watched as all the burdens of the economy have been shifted to those who work for a living.  We have seen the end of defined benefit pension systems, deteriorating access to employer-paid health insurance, and the rise of a model that eschews full-time work for part-time contract labor.  A successful postal business model has thus come to involve cheap labor, reduced service, and the privatization or outsourcing of public infrastructures.

But here’s a thought.  What if the problem with the Postal Service isn’t a failed business model at all? What if the real problem is a corporate structure that is ill suited to manage a fundamental infrastructure?  What if the problems of the Postal Service lay in a hidebound incestuous postal management system that has little accountability or oversight?  Could it be that our problems are related to a failure to properly distinguish between the management of government and the management of business?  What if the supposed failures of our postal system really reflect the failure of our society to value people, community, and basic public goods and infrastructures?

Who owns the Postal Service?

March 18, 2015


Who owns the post office?  Who is the post office designed to serve?  What is the system’s ultimate function?

These questions are fundamental to the future and the fate of the post office, the postal network, and postal services in this country. How we answer them will have a significant impact on businesses, workers, and communities.

We know the Constitution instructs — or more accurately, permits — Congress to make arrangements for post offices and post roads.  That is a good indication that the Founders saw postal services and the infrastructure that supported them as broadly essential to the nation — nation in their reckoning being the sum of the people.

But Congress has abdicated its responsibilities.  It no longer functions as a deliberative body and has become increasingly ineffective as a legislative body.  The Postal Service's Board of Governors has proven to be equally ineffective and has left postal managers to run operations as they see fit.  The regulatory system is relatively limited and not really able to represent the interests of the public as a whole.

All in all, the Postal Service is simply not accountable to the American people in the way it should be — or the way it must be if it is to survive as a vibrant public postal system, as envisioned by the Founders

In the debates about the Postal Service, the public interest is too often forgotten.  It's worth quoting yet again the stirring words of Title 39:

"The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people."

If these words are to mean anything, the leaders of the Postal Service, Congress, and the Executive branch must be reminded that the Postal Service is there to serve not some narrow economic interests but the people of the United States. 



The vision of the Founders

There are only a couple of mentions of the post office in the Federalist Papers, the set of writings by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay which offered the explanation and underlying reasoning that supported the new Constitution.  In Federalist 42, Madison wrote:

“The power of establishing post roads, must in every view be a harmless power; and may perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency. Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the states can be deemed unworthy of the public care." (emphasis added)

Benjamin Franklin certainly had a great deal to say about the post office.  As one of the inspirational leaders of the new nation and its first Postmaster General, Franklin clearly saw the importance and value of a robust postal system.  Early in his career as a printer and publisher, Franklin was disadvantaged because a competitor, Andrew Bradford, used his power as a postmaster to deny Franklin’s papers access to the postal system — an act that impressed upon Franklin the importance of broad access to the post.  In his biography of Franklin, Walter Isaacson says that the benefit of Franklin’s tenure as colonial postmaster, greater than the compensation he received, “was that it furthered Franklin’s conception of the disparate American colonies as a potentially unified nation with shared interests and needs.”

The Founders clearly recognized that an infrastructure that could serve to bind the nation together was essential not only for the free flow of information but also as a means of enhancing commerce. Washington even argued that newspapers and journals should travel the mails for free, while Madison suggested their cost be subsidized but that as matter of economy there should be a charge.  Whatever the expectations on funding or self-sufficiency, it is clear that the Founders saw a need for a public post, a postal system that belonged to and served the American people broadly.

Why Congress should not get out of the way of the Postal Service

November 23, 2014


News that Ron Johnson, the Tea Party favorite from Wisconsin, will be taking over as chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs has caused an overwhelming sense of panic among progressives and postal workers.  Johnson will control oversight of the Postal Service in the Senate.

There may be good reason to think this has the makings of disaster.  Johnson is on the record stating that it would be a good idea if the Postal Service went into bankruptcy and got privatized.  His training is in accounting, but he has refused, with an aggressive ignorance, to acknowledge the basic tenets of accounting.  When witnesses come before his committee, he bullies them and waves his arm abrasively.  His dislike of unions is so intense he’s willing to set aside his worship of the business principles of a contract to concoct a bankruptcy scheme to abrogate postal labor agreements. 

But is the coming of Ron Johnson any reason to panic?

Tom Coburn, the current ranking member on the committee, has said virtually all of the same things as Johnson (in his quiet, deadly way).   Several of the other Republicans on the committee — Rand Paul, Mike Enzi, and Kelly Ayotte — have also said many of the same things Johnson has.  All of them have shown a disdain for the Postal Service as an institution.  All of them have questioned the Postal Service role as a national infrastructure.

Never mind too that Tom Carper, the Democrat from Delaware and current chair of the committee, has endorsed virtually every cut, every closure, every act of outsourcing that PMG Donahoe has engaged in or even imagined.  On postal matters, his views are not that far from Johnson’s. 


It could be the end

While Ron Johnson will probably just carry on like Carper, Coburn, and the other Republicans on the committee overseeing the Postal Service, the specter of Senator Johnson as chair is haunting progressives. 

The sky is falling at Think Progress, where Kira Lerner tells us that with Johnson “it could be the end of the Postal Service as we know it.”  Lerner therefore hopes that Congress passes legislation — any legislation at all, bad as it might be — before Johnson can pass something worse.

But how likely is that the any legislation to come out of a lame duck session will be any good?  Anything likely to come out of the Senate would carve in stone the current agenda of cuts to the workforce, reductions in service, and secret NSA agreements.  Plus, any bill passed by the Senate would have to go to conference with whatever Darrell Issa comes up with in the House.  The result will be further degradation of the postal network.  There’s little chance it will make those who care about postal services in this country very happy. 

Over at Daily Kos, Laura Clawson seems just as frightened of Johnson as Lerner is.  Faced with Johnson’s statement that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process, Clawson says, “Another solution is for Congress to get out of the way of the Postal Service making money providing needed services like banking for tens of millions of people who don't have access to financial institutions.”

Postal banking might be useful for the millions of unbanked citizens, but it’s worth giving this notion of “getting Congress out of the way” a bit more thought.  The idea seems to be almost everyone’s answer for what ails the Postal Service.  Blaming Congress is apparently something that folks everywhere on the political spectrum can agree on. 

That should come as no surprise, considering that Congress has become less popular than a shady used car salesman.  But would all be right with the Postal Service if Congress just got out of the way?

The answer to that depends a lot on what you want the Postal Service to do with its newfound freedom.


We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the Postal Service

May 8, 2014


It looks like the folks in L’Enfant Plaza will be the last to acknowledge what everyone else in the country already knows — customer service at the Postal Service is going way down hill, and fast. 

The plant consolidations have resulted in delayed mail, late delivery, and countless other service problems.  Under POStPlan, service has declined due to reducing hours at post offices and replacing experienced postmasters with poorly trained and underpaid personnel.  The shift from door and curb delivery to cluster boxes has confused and angered thousands of customers.  When customers try calling to complain, they can’t even get hold of their local post office.

Everyday there are news reports about such problems.  Postal officials say they’re just trying to make the system more “efficient” and to act “like a business,” but what they’re doing is taking the “service” out of Postal Service.  When they’re done, we’re going to end up with a United State Postal Corporation, and customer service is not going to be high on the agenda. 


Inventive interpretations

Much of the problem has to do with the way policies and initiatives that come out of postal headquarters get interpreted in the field.  As much as the Postal Service is a top-down autocracy that tries to micromanage everything, many senior and mid-level managers at the district and local level can get quite creative about how they understand directives from above.  In their zeal to please their superiors, employees can end up interpreting policies and regulations in ways that make very little sense. 

For example, it’s well known that the folks at headquarters would like to see a shift from door delivery to cluster boxes, but it’s postal policy not to change a customer’s mode of delivery without permission.  Nonetheless, last year the managers in the North Florida District decided to negotiate with the government agency that oversees Jekyll Island, Georgia, and together they decided that the island could keep its post office only if residents gave up door delivery — without getting the residents’ approval for the change.

In Freistatt, Missouri, Rick Belcher, the POOM representing the Mid-Americas District, decided that cluster boxes were the only alternative form of delivery that would be made available to residents after their local post office was closed because of a lease issue. This was in spite of the fact that rural curb delivery was already available throughout the area.

Then there was the story about the book publisher in Virginia who was told by a local manager that he could no longer use Media Mail to send his books — even though he’d been mailing that way for 22 years.  His customers, by the way, are members of the military.

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